Let’s start this off with a bit of a disclaimer about this headline. The 2021 Cincinnati Reds likely, at many junctures, planned on being able to run. They weren’t the kind of front office that only picked Bowser in Mario Tennis and just tried to ace it past you at 200 mph as their only way of scoring.
Last season’s Reds were supposed to have Nick Senzel around a lot, and Nick Senzel can run like the wind. The club invested heavily in Shogo Akiyama, too, and it was mostly expected that he’d be a bigger part of the 2021 season than he ever was. There were some legs on the roster, at least for a time.
A more longwinded headline should probably have read: The 2021 Cincinnati Reds packed for a long weekend trip where they knew they probably should run at least a little bit, but when they opened their suitcase at the hotel all they had were their Timbs and some well-worn Bass Weejuns. So, they rolled with what they had, and what was hot, and that turned out to be largely some lumbering galoots.
The 2021 Reds stole 36 bases total, all year. That was by far and away the fewest number of steals by any team in the game, and while ‘not trying to steal’ was an overriding theme of the team’s offensive approach, it wasn’t like they barely tried it and were also good at it. Rather, they were quite bad even when they did try to swipe an extra bag here and there, their 24 times caught stealing still tied for 12th most among any team (with 26 having been a tie for 8th most).
FanGraphs was well aware, as it turns out. Their SpD statistic isn’t actually a measure of footspeed, granted, but it’s a way of scoring teams baserunning based on a combination of other things (including steals, caught stealing, triples, etc.). The Reds ranked dead last among MLB’s 30 clubs in that category. Their BsR stat serves as the all-encompassing baserunning component of their Wins Above Replacement metric, and by BsR, the Reds ranked tied for 2nd worst among MLB’s 30 clubs.
Statcast took note of the sluggish Reds feet in a slightly different way - on defense. Specifically in the outfield, where players usually need to use their ability to run more than at, say, the hot corner, where one initial reactive step in the right direction is the primary determinant of getting to a ball. In terms of outfield jump, Cincinnati’s primary trio of outfielders from 2021 - Tyler Naquin, Nick Castellanos, and Jesse Winker - ranked 90th, 91st, and 98th, respectively in that category (measured as ‘Feet vs Average jump).
Without full context, that sounds bad. When I tell you the entire sample only had 98 outfielders, that makes it sound much, much worse. As an unsurprising result, all three ranked in the bottom 12 in OAA as outfielders, too.
The outfield wasn’t particularly speedy, it would appear. Nobody on the team was very good at stealing bases, and few even tried. The infield eye-test showed some promise with young Jonathan India, obviously, but also featured a career 1B who turned 38 years old, a 3B trying to run with his foot tearing in half most of the year, and a 31 year old C-turned-SS.
The second part of the headline of this, though, is where I run into a bit of a conundrum. Did it really matter that much during the 2021 season? Is that at all why they fell short? Is it of utmost importance that the Reds address those failings this winter or, perhaps, was it by design in the first place?
Triples and the Cincinnati Reds are a bit of a chicken/egg issue, as they have been since the cozy confines of Great American Ball Park opened up nearly two decades ago (read that last part out loud to yourself and try not to feel old). The park was obviously built small, at the time to theoretically accommodate Ken Griffey, Jr. on his quest for the King of Dingers title. Small parks, while so often a boon for homers and overall runs scored, do have a tendency to inhibit triples, as there’s just less square footage for balls to roll around out there. There are no nooks and crannies out there like in San Francisco or Houston or Boston, either, limiting the number of unexpected bounces for novice defenders.
The entirety of the Reds roster in 2021 hit 7 triples in their home ball park. Only the New York Yankees (and their own lumbering roster in a home bandbox) had fewer, with 4. That’s the kind of thing that might make you say ‘well, triples are a part of BsR and SpD, and the Reds get dinged for not having triples on their ledger when it’s really a small ball park issue,’ and as I inferred two paragraphs ago, I’m no expert here to deny that assertion. There may be no worse park in the game for baserunners than GABP when it comes to trying to take 3B, as the OFs are as close to the bag as in any park out there. Not to mention that the odds that the next batter floats one into the seats for a 2-run bomb are greater than elsewhere, meaning settling for a double just makes a ton of sense.
The 2021 Reds only hit 6 triples all season in their 81 road games, though. That was tied for the 4th fewest among all MLB teams, their 13 total triples worsted only by the Yankees (12) and Seattle Mariners (11).
If I’m going to use SpD and BsR to call out the 1/(fleet footedness) of the 2021 Reds, I suppose it’s worth checking back in their peers in those categories, too, as the Yankees and Mariners had half-decent seasons while not tearing up the bases looking for triples. None of the three best rated BsR clubs made the postseason (Kansas City, Colorado, Oakland), though 4th and 5th on that list were the streaking St. Louis Cardinals and the ever-present Tampa Bay Rays. The Reds were buried at the bottom with the Yankees, worsted only by Washington, and just ahead of the woeful Mets and Chicago Cubs. SpD also had the Yanks as co-awful with the Reds in the basement, with the woeful Mets, Nationals, and Orioles next-worst on the list. Tampa again ranked well in that, their team SpD tied for the 2nd best mark, but Cleveland led and each of Kansas City, Colorado, and Detroit ranked in the top 5 - not exactly a who’s who of good teams in 2021.
Speed and defense intuitively seem like good things to have, but may well just end up being luxury features on players whose other qualities need to be emphasized much, much more. Sprint speed and outfield jump don’t make up for taters and barrel rate on their own, in other words. Adding free agent Starling Marte - who led all MLB in BsR last year - would be nice for a number of reasons, but I’m not sure swapping him for, say, Jesse Winker - who was 3rd worst in BsR of the 263 MLB players with at least 300 PA - would have been the kind of cataclysmic change needed to vault the Reds into the playoffs on its own.
Still, it’s worth noting that there aren’t a ton of places where the Reds can make major changes to their everyday lineup without some heavy, heavy lifting. Their infield seems set due to huge financial obligations and burgeoning young talent, so it’s the outfield that will likely see any overhaul, especially with Nick Castellanos likely to head out. So, maybe that is where, and how, they’ll try to get better, especially since (as the teams atop the leaderboards in the fleet-footed categories show) speed usually doesn’t come at a costly premium on the open market.
Or maybe the Reds will just sit tight, bank on Shogo and Senzel being healthy, and call it a day. Wouldn’t be the first time for that kind of thing, after all...